Air France Crash Report Points to Pilot Errors as Skills Undergo a Review - 'Damn it, we're going to crash'

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    May 02, 2012 3:01 AM GMT
    Pitot tube icing leading to faulty airspeed indication, confusion in cockpit, most likely aggravated by an Airbus design feature where the second pilot's stick stays neutral, making it harder for him to get a complete picture. (Excerpt below.)

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-29/air-france-crash-probe-puts-focus-on-improving-pilots-emergency-training.html

    http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/FRANCE+CRASH+REPORT/6547853/story.html

    Like all other aircraft in the modern Airbus range the A330 is controlled by side sticks beside pilots' seats, which resemble those on computer game consoles. These side sticks are not connected to the aircraft control surfaces by levers and pulleys, as in older aircraft. Instead commands are fed to computers, which in turn send signals to the engines and hydraulics. This so-called fly-by-wire technology has huge advantages. Doing away with mechanical connections saves weight, and therefore fuel. There are fewer moving components to go wrong, the slender electronic wiring and computers all have multiple back?ups, and the onboard processors take much of the workload off pilots. Better still, they are programmed to compensate for human error.

    The side sticks are also wonderfully clever. Once a command is given, say a 10-degree left turn, the pilot can let the stick go and concentrate on other issues while the 10-degree turn is perfectly maintained. According to Stephen King of the British Airline Pilots' Association, it's an admired and popular design. "Most Airbus pilots I know love it because of the reliable automation that allows you to manage situations and not be so fatigued by the mechanics of flying."

    But the fact that the second pilot's stick stays in neutral whatever the input to the other is not a good thing. As King concedes: "It's not immediately apparent to one pilot what the other may be doing with the control stick, unless he makes a big effort to look across to the other side of the flight deck, which is not easy. In any case, the side stick is held back for only a few seconds, so you have to see the action being taken."

    Thus it was that even when Bonin had the A330's nose pointed upward during the fatal stall, his colleagues failed to comprehend what was going on. It seems clear from the transcripts that Robert assumed the plane was flying level or even descending. Robert himself was panicking: "We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don't understand what's happening." Ninety seconds after the emergency began the captain was back in the cockpit demanding: "What the hell are you doing?" To which both pilots responded: "We've lost control of the plane!"
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    May 02, 2012 3:08 AM GMT
    Sigh...maybe I SHOULD go to the airlines.

    One thing I'm always serious as fuck about is emergency procedures. If a person can't handle a fucking stall, they're fired (or not hired in the first place).
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    May 02, 2012 3:26 AM GMT
    Weren't the pilots aware of the storm they were approaching? If so, that was mistake #1. Whenever there is a huge storm, I believe pilots are forced to go around it and since they were far within radar contact I'm sure they didn't necessarily need clearance probably only needed to alert other aircrafts in the vicinity (if they can) of there change in direction.

    There seems to be a huge miscommunication from the flight crew. I wonder how many times this crew flew together and the experience in hours from each individual. Usually standard precautions in a stall require the pilots to push down on the nose of the aircraft to gain more speed and recover. I don't remember if they did this since they were confused by the aircraft's measurements. Anyways if I had to label this accident it would probably be "Pilot Error".
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    May 02, 2012 3:35 AM GMT
    flguy18 said...Anyways if I had to label this accident it would probably be "Pilot Error".

    It seems to be primarily pilot error. I think there was a study by NASA several years ago that analyzed plane crashes. Why NASA rather than FAA or NTSB, don't recall. Anyway, many crashes were preceded by a chain of bad decisions. One leading to another, leading to a mishap.
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    May 02, 2012 4:19 AM GMT
    Before commenting more, I want to read the official report. In the US that would be easy for me (ntsb.gov and faa.gov). However, this happened in international waters and I'm having trouble finding the official documentation for the aircraft registered as F-GZCP (registration code for that plane).
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    May 03, 2012 12:14 AM GMT
    Isn't one of the problems also that neither pilot at the controls believed the aircraft could/would stall at such a high altitude? Isn't that what also happened to that MD8x in Colombia or Venezuela as well? Pilot error due to confusion as to what was *actually* happening...
    The fact that the AOA of AF447 was very high while descending meant the pilot was obviously pulling back on the side stick correct?... I believe the PIC of the doomed Colgan Q400 flight also reacted to a stall by pulling back on the controls... it confuses me to no end why a trained pilot would react in such a way when losing airspeed and altitude icon_confused.gif Any pilots on here care to discuss that error?
  • hebrewman

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    May 03, 2012 12:22 AM GMT
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    May 03, 2012 12:51 AM GMT
    k3l3k0 saidIsn't one of the problems also that neither pilot at the controls believed the aircraft could/would stall at such a high altitude? Isn't that what also happened to that MD8x in Colombia or Venezuela as well? Pilot error due to confusion as to what was *actually* happening...
    The fact that the AOA of AF447 was very high while descending meant the pilot was obviously pulling back on the side stick correct?... I believe the PIC of the doomed Colgan Q400 flight also reacted to a stall by pulling back on the controls... it confuses me to no end why a trained pilot would react in such a way when losing airspeed and altitude icon_confused.gif Any pilots on here care to discuss that error?


    Well for the Colgan Air crash the pilots used really bad judgement and set the flaps wrong and plus the icing and snow didn't help either.
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    May 03, 2012 12:52 AM GMT
    Oh and the Colgan flight didn't stall it just nose dived after they set the flaps or something.
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    May 03, 2012 1:15 AM GMT
    flguy18 saidOh and the Colgan flight didn't stall it just nose dived after they set the flaps or something.


    planes don't just nose dive for no reason though... I'm pretty sure it was a stall due to icing and not watching the airspeed followed by the stall alarm and the captain then pulling back on the controls causing loss of control...
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    May 03, 2012 2:12 AM GMT
    k3l3k0 saidIsn't one of the problems also that neither pilot at the controls believed the aircraft could/would stall at such a high altitude? Isn't that what also happened to that MD8x in Colombia or Venezuela as well? Pilot error due to confusion as to what was *actually* happening...
    The fact that the AOA of AF447 was very high while descending meant the pilot was obviously pulling back on the side stick correct?... I believe the PIC of the doomed Colgan Q400 flight also reacted to a stall by pulling back on the controls... it confuses me to no end why a trained pilot would react in such a way when losing airspeed and altitude icon_confused.gif Any pilots on here care to discuss that error?

    A blocked pitot tube will cause the airspeed indicator to become unreliable. It can show an increase in airspeed when the aircraft climbs, even though actual airspeed is constant. If the pilot does not cross-check the other instruments and believes the airspeed is too high, he might pull the nose up to bleed off airspeed, making the problem even worse, and confusing the pilot who would expect the airspeed to decrease, not increase. A plane can stall at any altitude, and that is apparently what happened. They possibly did not recognize the stall given the general turbulence until too late.

    It might have started by the pilots neglecting to turn on the pitot tube heat, allowing for icing. Although training involves cross-checking so that one malfunction doesn't become disastrous, it seems that the chain of bad decisions results from tunnel vision thinking.
  • groundcombat

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    May 03, 2012 2:19 AM GMT
    Seems like people are forgetting a crucial piece: the airspeed indication was off. I can lose a lot of instruments but God don't let it be airspeed! It can tell you so much which is why it was the first thing I always checked during unusual attitude recovery.
  • DCguy2001

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    May 03, 2012 2:43 AM GMT
    Human error combined with possible design defect(s). Very chilling, especially the audio recording of the last couple of minutes in the cockpit.
  • Suetonius

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    May 03, 2012 12:17 PM GMT
    I'm not surprised that Airbus has a bad design of the sidestick; but at least (from what I have read) they corrected the problem of pitot tube icing (at least they can learn from a crash that some design flaws have consequences.) Kind of like how Boeing gradually learned to get it right with the 737 by correcting - after the fact - design mistakes that caused early crashes. A rational traveler would not now fly on an Airbus plane, nor on AirFrance (one of my cousins - and aeronautical engineer, will never fly on an Airbus)- but since Airbus comprises a very large percentage of US Carrier's fleets, not exactly realistic. I guess we have to be sure we have our wills and trusts all done for sure before we board an Airbus plane. We would have better design if the penalties for bad design crashes were much more severe - (much, much larger damage awards in aircrash lawsuits) and much quicker in coming, so they actually meant something to the company's balance sheet - like multiple billions of dollars. (Though something they will never have to worry about, since the anti-litigation sentiment of the republicans and FoxNews seems to dominate politics).
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    May 03, 2012 7:48 PM GMT
    Suetonius saidI'm not surprised that Airbus has a bad design of the sidestick; but at least (from what I have read) they corrected the problem of pitot tube icing (at least they can learn from a crash that some design flaws have consequences.) Kind of like how Boeing gradually learned to get it right with the 737 by correcting - after the fact - design mistakes that caused early crashes. A rational traveler would not now fly on an Airbus plane, nor on AirFrance (one of my cousins - and aeronautical engineer, will never fly on an Airbus)- but since Airbus comprises a very large percentage of US Carrier's fleets, not exactly realistic. I guess we have to be sure we have our wills and trusts all done for sure before we board an Airbus plane. We would have better design if the penalties for bad design crashes were much more severe - (much, much larger damage awards in aircrash lawsuits) and much quicker in coming, so they actually meant something to the company's balance sheet - like multiple billions of dollars. (Though something they will never have to worry about, since the anti-litigation sentiment of the republicans and FoxNews seems to dominate politics).


    icon_rolleyes.gif I really wish I hadn't spent any time reading your response...
  • Suetonius

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    May 04, 2012 11:14 AM GMT
    southbeach1500 said
    Suetonius saidA rational traveler would not now fly on an Airbus plane, nor on AirFrance (one of my cousins - and aeronautical engineer, will never fly on an Airbus)- but since Airbus comprises a very large percentage of US Carrier's fleets, not exactly realistic.


    Well, the fact that Airbus planes aren't falling out of the sky is a pretty good indicator that they are in fact quite safe.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that "not falling out of the sky on a regular basis" means they are quite safe. I guess they are safe if properly piloted by pilots who are constantly alert - but who knows what other defect (like the pitot tubes) is yet to be discovered after another crash. Russian built planes used by Aeroflot did not constantly fall out of the sky - only occasionally - but who would fly in one if they had the choice not to? It appears that the sidestick problems written about are an unsafe design. Whether they will contribute to further crashes is yet to be learned.


    Suetonius saidI guess we have to be sure we have our wills and trusts all done for sure before we board an Airbus plane.


    You're joking, right?

    No; not joking.
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    May 04, 2012 12:31 PM GMT
    Fact, travelling by air is still safer than by car, might as well get your Will & Testament in order before you head out for the grocery shop than a trip on the Airbus! ;)

    As for the report, I can't comment, the pilots on here will all know that there are times when the bells and lights are blaring on the flight deck during a sim session and it's easy to misdiagnose the problem. Sat in the de-brief, it's clear as day and easy to judge but at the time you're relying on instinct backed up with tech knowledge of the plane and analysis of the situation, blocked pitots are just want you don't need!

    Boeing man here, I prefer the logic of push forward, grounds gets larger as does airspeed rather than the stall logic/stick logic of an Airbus of which I have little knowledge. What I am sure of is that those poor buggers did all they thought was right at the time until it was too late, the best we can do is not judge but to learn!
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    May 04, 2012 10:55 PM GMT
    So sad. Reading that second report, my heart was racing just thinking what those pilots were going through. It sounds like Bonin was probably napping while it was on auto pilot, then when the alarm sounded, he was so disoriented he panicked and couldn't think straight. At the same time, the two more experienced pilots should have taken over the controls much sooner. Tragic.
  • groundcombat

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    May 07, 2012 4:22 PM GMT
    ECnAZ saidSo sad. Reading that second report, my heart was racing just thinking what those pilots were going through. It sounds like Bonin was probably napping while it was on auto pilot, then when the alarm sounded, he was so disoriented he panicked and couldn't think straight. At the same time, the two more experienced pilots should have taken over the controls much sooner. Tragic.


    Agreed. I got chills reading the article too. Although I do partially blame the Airbus design. You'd think in that situation the more senior pilots would've taken the controls sooner but I think that feedback is really important in gaining the situational awareness necessary to decide when to take the controls. It's clear they weren't even aware of the situation until Bonin said he'd had the stick back the whole time.